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The Conscience of Color, from Chemistry to Culture

“Colors are not possessions; they are the intimate revelations of an energy field… light waves with mathematically precise lengths… deep, resonant mysteries with boundless subjectivity… Our lives, when we pay attention to light, compel us to empathy with color.”

The Conscience of Color, from Chemistry to Culture

“The deep blue water of the open sea far from land is the color of emptiness and barrenness; the green water of the coastal areas, with all its varying hues, is the color of life,” Rachel Carson wrote as she illuminated the science and splendor of the marine spectrum, enriching the literary canon of history’s most beautiful meditations on the color blue.

The color of life, the actual chromatic hue that makes our rocky planet a living world, is somewhere between the blue of water and the green of land — when Carl Sagan looked at the grainy Voyager photograph of Earth seen from the far reaches of the Solar System for the very first time, he famously eulogized our Pale Blue Dot. But the color of that dot “suspended in a sunbeam” is rather between blue and green: a pixel of turquoise.

That color — its chromatic science and its cultural symbology — is what Ellen Meloy (June 21, 1946–November 4, 2004) explores in The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky (public library).

Goethe’s color wheel, 1809. (Available as a print.)

Two centuries after Goethe wrote in his poetically beguiling, philosophically promising, but scientifically incorrect theory of color and emotion that “colors are the deeds and sufferings of light” and two generations after Frida Kahlo considered the meaning of the colors, Meloy bridges the metaphysical and the scientific across the undercurrent of the poetic:

Colors are not possessions; they are the intimate revelations of an energy field… They are light waves with mathematically precise lengths, and they are deep, resonant mysteries with boundless subjectivity.

There is no more fertile a region of subjectivity than language — the human effort to contain the uncontainable, the fluid, the nuanced into vessels of concept and category. The chromatic boundlessness of the spectrum therefore has a peculiar relationship to language, exposing the limitations of our primary sensemaking instrument against the limitless vistas of nature. (That might be why Darwin took with him on The Beagle a pioneering nomenclature of color as he set out to classify, categorize, and make sense of the natural world.) In a passage that illustrates just how primordial the link between the body and the mind is, just how inseparable our psychology from our physiology, Meloy writes:

Colors challenge language to encompass them. (It cannot; there are more sensations than words for them. Our eyes are far ahead of our tongues.) Colors bear the metaphors of entire cultures. They convey every sensation from lust to distress. They glow fluorescent on the flanks of a fish out of the water, then flee at its death. They mark the land of a woman deity who controls the soft desert rain. Flowers use colors ruthlessly for sex. Moths steal them from their surroundings and disappear. An octopus communicates by color; an octopus blush is language. Humans imbibe colors as antidotes to emotional monotony. Our lives, when we pay attention to light, compel us to empathy with color.

“Spectra of various light sources, solar, stellar, metallic, gaseous, electric” from Les phénomènes de la physique by Amédée Guillemin, 1882. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

The very concept of empathy as we know it was born in the early twentieth century to describe the experience of projecting oneself into a work of art — a projection screened by vision, an instrument millions of years in the making. It may be, in fact, that empathy and the eye are the twin triumphs of evolution. Meloy traces the interdependent development of the two:

In primitive life forms the eye began as a light-sensitive depression in the skin; the sense of sight likely evolved from the sense of touch.

The complex human eye harvests light. It perceives seven to ten million colors through a synaptic flash: one-tenth of a second from retina to brain. Homo sapiens gangs up 70 percent of its sense receptors solely for vision, to anticipate danger and recognize reward, but also — more so — for beauty. We have eyes refined by the evolution of predation. We use a predator’s eyes to marvel at the work of Titian or the Grand Canyon bathed in the copper light of a summer sunset.

There was biology, and then there was physics: Three centuries after Newton first unwove the rainbow to launch the dawn of optics and the study of light as a stream of particles, quantum mechanics staggered our elemental grasp of reality by positing that light — which is how and why we see color — might be both particle and wave. At the heart of this dizzying notion, called complementarity, is the idea that “you can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth,” in the words of the Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek.

Light distribution on soap bubble from Les phénomènes de la physique by Amédée Guillemin, 1882. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Sometimes, a truth can be so deep, so elemental, that it requires no explicit recognition, no echo in language. Goethe — who attempted to defy Newton while anticipating quantum physics — considered the purest form of blue a transcendent nothingness, “a stimulating negation.” Meloy writes:

When a name for a color is absent from a language, it is usually blue. When a name for a color is indefinite, it is usually green. Ancient Hebrew, Welsh, Vietnamese, and, until recently, Japanese, lack a word for blue… The Icelandic word for blue and black is the same, one word that fits sea, lava, and raven.

It has been shown that the words for colors enter evolving languages in this order, nearly universally: black, white, and red, then yellow and green (in either order), with green covering blue until blue comes into itself. Once blue is acquired, it eclipses green. Once named, blue pushes green into a less definite version. Green confusion is manifest in turquoise, the is-it-blue-or-is-it-green color. Despite the complexities of color names even in the same language, we somehow make sense of another person’s references. We know color as a perceptual “truth” that we imply and share without its direct experience, like feeling pain in a phantom limb or in another person’s body.

Within every color lies a story, and stories are the binding agent of culture.

Color wheel based on the classification system of the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul from Les phénomènes de la physique by Amédée Guillemin, 1882. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

But the deepest story of color is the most intimate one, the one that lives most closely to the perceptual locus of feeling that defines our entire experience of life. Meloy writes:

It seems as if the right words can come only out of the perfect space of a place you love.

In a sentiment evocative of the Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd’s lovely observation that “place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” she adds:

Between the senses and reason lies perception. At home or afield, that is where amazement resides, shunning explanation… Intoxication with color, sometimes subliminal, often fierce, may express itself as a profound attachment to landscape. It has been rightly said: Color is the first principle of Place.

We read color the way we read place: through our senses — these probosces of consciousness, increasingly severed by a culture that kidnaps us away from our bodies to hold our consciousness hostage before and behind screens. Echoing poet and science historian Diane Ackerman — who wrote so beautifully in her Natural History of the Senses that “there is no way in which to understand the world without first detecting it through the radar-net of our senses” — Meloy writes with soulful urgency:

Each of us possesses five fundamental, enthralling maps to the natural world: sight, touch, taste, hearing, smell. As we unravel the threads that bind us to nature, as denizens of data and artifice, amid crowds and clutter, we become miserly with these loyal and exquisite guides, we numb our sensory intelligence. This failure of attention will make orphans of us all.

Art from Geographical Portfolio — Comprising Physical, Political, Geological, and Astronomical Geography by Levi Walter Yaggy, 1887. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Meloy traces the layered sensorial story of turquoise and its genesis in the body of the world — a testament to the indivisibility of science and culture:

Turquoise is ornament, jewel, talisman, tessera. It is religion. It is pawn. It is not favored for pinkie rings. It did not likely come from Turkey, its namesake, but took the name of the land it crossed on the old trade routes from Persia to Europe.


The chemistry of turquoise: CuAl6(PO4)4(OH)8•4H2O, a hydrous phosphate of copper and aluminum. The copper and aluminum — along with iron and other mineral traces — join with a phosphate radical, a group of oxygen atoms so clustered around nonmetallic phosphorus that they behave like a single atom.

Phosphates are known for their bright colors. In turquoise, according to some mineralogists, the blue comes from the copper; the green comes from the presence of iron. Dark, spidery veins reveal the matrix in which turquoise participates; the veins are usually limonite, iron-stained quartz, metallic oxides, or other minerals.

Turquoise occurs in limestone, batholithic and feldspathic granites, shale, and trachyte, rocks that are found nearly everywhere. Unless they are in an arid environment, however, they are not likely to bear turquoise. Although turquoise has more than one origin, most types formed million years ago, when groundwater seeped into alumina- and copper-rich mineralized fractures in zones of igneous rock. What has been said about gold can be said about turquoise: turquoise is the burden of waters.

Blues from the Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours: Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Anatomy, and the Arts, which inspired Darwin. (Available as a print and a face mask.)

Against this cultural-cosmic backdrop, she considers “the dignity of turquoise”:

Ancient southwesterners gave turquoise, the greatest wealth, as offerings to water, the desert’s greatest gift. They left tokens of turquoise at canyon seeps and springs amid emerald mosses, maidenhair ferns, creamy blooms of columbine, crimson monkey flowers, dragonflies the color of flame, and heron-blue damselflies with bodies as thin as a vein. From turquoise they carved tadpoles a quarter-inch long and set raised turquoise eyes in toads of black jet. With turquoise they traded for copper bells, macaw feathers, the skins and plumes of parrots, and pearlescent shells from the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez — the stone of the desert for the glories of sea and forest.

Bridging the human and the scientific with her own being, bridging the creaturely and the geologic with her own ephemeral existence, Meloy paints the psychogeography of color:

As a desert dweller, I believe that water is a truer entry to Place. In the West, aridity defines us. There is abundant water here in the Yucatán — ocean, marsh, lagoon, underground rivers, cenotes (natural wells where freshwater surfaces), a tropical forest swollen with transpiration. Storms bring a hurricane’s eyewall of torrents or nothing at all; even jungles have droughts. By invasion and sheer presence, the sea pushes itself into what is drinkable and what is heard, or what you miss hearing when you are distant from the surf. The sea holds an abundance of comfort and inspiration and danger, all that a person needs in order to rise to the full largesse of beauty. It seems that if you allow this beauty to become a blank, if you turn your back to the blues and deny your dependence on them, you might lose your place in the world, your actions would become small, your soul disengaged.

Art from Geographical Portfolio — Comprising Physical, Political, Geological, and Astronomical Geography by Levi Walter Yaggy, 1887. (Available as a print.)

A gorgeous read in its entirety, The Anthropology of Turquoise (public library), published shortly before Meloy’s sudden and untimely death, earned her a posthumous John Burroughs Medal — the Nobel Prize of nature writing, of which Carson was also a recipient. Complement it with a symphonic illustrated celebration of nature’s rarest color, then revisit Maggie Nelson’s exquisite love letter to blue.


The Blue Hour: A Stunning Illustrated Celebration of Nature’s Rarest Color

“The day ends. The night falls. And in between… there is the blue hour.”

The Blue Hour: A Stunning Illustrated Celebration of Nature’s Rarest Color

Blue, Rebecca Solnit wrote in one of humanity’s most beautiful reflections on our planet’s primary hue, is “the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here… the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in, for the blue world,” a world of many blues — a pioneering 19th-century nomenclature of colors listed eleven kinds of blue, in hues as varied as the color of the flax-flower and the throat of the blue titmouse and the stamina of a certain species of anemone. Darwin took this guide with him on The Beagle in order to better describe what he saw. We name in order to see better and apprehend only what we know how to name, how to think about.

But despite Earth’s distinction as the Solar System’s “Pale Blue Dot,” this planetary blueness is only a perceptual phenomenon arising from how our particular atmosphere, with its particular chemistry, absorbs and reflects light. Everything we behold — a ball, a bird, a planet — is the color we perceive it to be because of its insentient stubbornness toward the spectrum, because these are the wavelengths of light it refuses to absorb and instead reflects back.

In the living world beneath our red-ravenous atmosphere, blue is the rarest color: There is no naturally occurring true blue pigment in nature. In consequence, only a slender portion of plants bloom in blue and an even more negligible number of animals are bedecked with it, all having to perform various tricks with chemistry and the physics of light, some having evolved astonishing triumphs of structural geometry to render themselves blue: Each feather of the bluejay is tessellated with tiny light-reflecting beads arranged to cancel out every wavelength of light except the blue; the wings of the blue morpho butterflies — which Nabokov, in his spree of making major contributions to lepidoptery while revolutionizing literature, rightly described as “shimmering light-blue mirrors” — are covered with miniature scales ridged at the precise angle to bend light in such a way that only the blue portion of the spectrum is reflected to the eye of the beholder. Only a handful of known animals, all species of butterfly, produce pigments as close to blue as nature can get — green-tinted aquamarines the color of Uranus.

In The Blue Hour (public library), French illustrator and author Isabelle Simler offers a stunning joint celebration of these uncommon blue creatures and the common blue world they inhabit, the Pale Blue Dot we share.

The book opens with a palette of blues strewn across the endpapers — from the delicate “porcelain blue” to the boldly iconic “Klein blue” to the brooding “midnight blue” — hues that come alive in Simler’s vibrant, consummately cross-hatched illustrations of creatures and landscapes, named in spare, lyrical words. What emerges is part minimalist encyclopedia, part cinematic lullaby.

The day ends.
The night falls.
And in between…
there is the blue hour.

We meet the famed blue morpho butterfly spreading its wings against the blue morning glory, the Arctic fox traversing the icy expanse in its blue-tinted coat, the blue poison dart frogs croaking at each other across the South American forest, the silvery-blue sardines glimmering beneath the surface of the blue ocean, the blue racer snake coiled around a branch, the various blue birds silent or singing in the gloaming hour.

Given my uncommon love of snails, I was especially pleased to find the glass snail gracing this menagerie of blue-tinted living wonders.

In the final pages, as the black of night drains the blue hour from the day, all the creatures grow silent and motionless, the hint of their presence consecrating the apparition of this blue world.

Couple The Blue Hour — a large-scale splendor of paper and ink untranslatable to this small blue-reflecting screen — with Maggie Nelson’s love letter to blue, then find a kindred painted celebration of the natural world in The Lost Spells.

Illustrations by Isabelle Simler; photographs by Maria Popova


13-Year-Old Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Prejudice, Its Antidote, and the Five Documents That Shaped Humanity

“No one can feel free from danger and destruction until the many torn threads of civilization are bound together again… There can be a happy world… when men create a strong bond towards one another, a bond unbreakable by a studied prejudice or a passing circumstance.”

13-Year-Old Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Prejudice, Its Antidote, and the Five Documents That Shaped Humanity

“Society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed,” Hannah Arendt wrote in the 1940s as she grappled with Jewishness, the immigrant identity, and the refugee plight for belonging. In the same era, a young girl who would grow into another woman of titanic consequence to political thought and the advancement of justice took up the subject of prejudice, its antidote, and the pillars of human dignity in her middle school newspaper, of which she was the editor.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (March 15, 1933–September 18, 2020) had barely cusped from childhood to adolescence when she watched in awe as her greatest role model — Eleanor Roosevelt, with her floral dresses and her “spine as stiff as the steel girder of a skyscraper” — was appointed chairperson of the newly established United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

Ruth Bader as a child.

There is no overestimating the quickening of mind, the stir of soul, the immense swell of inspired idealism, which great role models can spark in the young. At a time when the world was reckoning with the savaging fusion of grief and shame in the wake of its most inhumane war, at an age when the human animal gets its first taste of that most dangerous and self-destructive substance of the spirit — cynicism — the thirteen-year-old future Supreme Court Justice chose the courage of idealism over the cowardice of cynicism as she considered humanity’s path forward toward a safer, saner, more equitable world in a June 1946 op-ed for her school paper, published under the byline “Ruth Bader, Grade 8B1” and included in My Own Words (public library) — the collection culled from a lifetime of writings, selected by Justice Ginsburg herself and her official biographers, Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams.

Reflecting on the “four great documents” that have shaped the world since its beginning — “great because of all the benefits to humanity which came about as a result of their fine ideals and principles”: the Ten Commandments, the Magna Carta, the 1689 Bill of Rights, and the American Declaration of Independence — the young Ruth writes:

Now we have a fifth great document, the Charter of the United Nations. Its purpose and principles are to maintain international peace and security, to practice tolerance, and to suppress any acts of aggression or other breaches of peace.

It is vital that peace be assured, for now we have a weapon that can destroy the world. We children of public school age can do much to aid in the promotion of peace. We must try to train ourselves and those about us to live together with one another as good neighbors for this idea is embodied in the great new Charter of the United Nations. It is the only way to secure the world against future wars and maintain an everlasting peace.

Later that month, as Hannah Arendt was examining the aftermath of the Holocaust and incubating the ideas that would become her epoch-making treatise on the only viable antidote to evil, Ruth picked up the subject in another op-ed, titled “One People” and published in the bulletin of her synagogue:

The war has left a bloody trail and many deep wounds not too easily healed. Many people have been left with scars that take a long time to pass away. We must never forget the horrors which our brethren were subjected to in Bergen-Belsen and other Nazi concentration camps. Then, too, we must try hard to understand that for righteous people hate and prejudice are neither good occupations nor fit companions. Rabbi Alfred Bettleheim once said: “Prejudice saves us a painful trouble, the trouble of thinking.”

Artist Margaret C. Cook’s illustration for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Echoing Bertrand Russell’s memorable admonition that “even the most orthodox of us may find himself in a minority some day, so that we all have an interest in restraining the tyranny of majorities,” she added:

No one can feel free from danger and destruction until the many torn threads of civilization are bound together again. We cannot feel safer until every nation, regardless of weapons or power, will meet together in good faith, the people worthy of mutual association. There can be a happy world and there will be once again, when men create a strong bond towards one another, a bond unbreakable by a studied prejudice or a passing circumstance.

Complement with Walter Lippmann — another rare visionary whose writings shaped the ideals of Ginsburg’s generation — on the antidote to prejudice, then revisit Eleanor Roosevelt reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — the next great document paving humanity’s path toward true humanness, built on the foundation of the Charter of the United Nations.


Poet and Philosopher David Whyte’s Gorgeous Letter to Children About Reading, Amazement, and the Exhilaration of Discovering the Undiscovered

A celebration of the delicious enchantment of the very first time.

Poet and Philosopher David Whyte’s Gorgeous Letter to Children About Reading, Amazement, and the Exhilaration of Discovering the Undiscovered

I remember the feeling of first seeing the Moon through the small handheld telescope my father had smuggled from East Germany — how ancient yet proximate it felt, how alive, as though I could glide my six-year-old finger over its rugged radiance — the feeling of electric astonishment at something so surprising yet so inevitable, something that seemed to have always been waiting there just for me to discover it. I remember next having that feeling nearly a decade later, upon first reading To the Lighthouse, my English still too crude to register every note of nuance, but attuned enough to be staggered by the symphonic might of Virginia Woolf’s prose, to be stirred in some still-dim corner of my own mind by the glowing edges of hers.

It is an unrepeatable feeling — better than a first kiss, for it comes without anticipation or hope; more like a great love that rises from some unseen shore like a great blue heron over the misty lake at dawn, unbidden and improbable and discomposing in its majesty. It is a feeling often found between the covers of a great book, in the stillness between expectations, or as the twist at the end of a great poem dopplers past you in the hallway of the mind, leaving you stunned and transformed.

In some strange and wondrous sense, then, that which is still ahead of you, still waiting to be discovered, still holding its secret astonishment, is the most delicious, delirious of rewards.

Umberto Eco hinted at this in his wonderful notion of the “antilibrary” with its insistence that unread books, by virtue of their yet-unimagined and unsavored nourishment, have more value to our inner lives than those we have already metabolized. A generation later, poet and philosopher David Whyte address this in his gorgeous contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — that labor-of-love collection of 121 original illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us by poets and physicists, cellists and entrepreneurs, artists and astronauts — some of the most inspiring humans in our world, whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Art by Felicita Sala for a letter by David Whyte from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Whyte writes:

Dear Young Friend,

I wish. I wish, I wish, I wish; I wish I were in your shoes now, I wish I were standing where you are standing now, I would swap everything I have learned through my reading, I would swap my entire library of a thousand books, every journey and adventure I have taken through their pages, all the insights about the world and myself, all the laughter, the tragedy, the moments of shock and relief, all the books that have amazed me and that have made me reread them again and again, to be at the beginning as you are, so that I could read them all again for the very first time.

I wish, I wish, I wish I were in your place with all the books of the world waiting patiently for me. It would be so astonishing to come across Coleridge as a perfect stranger and hear his voice for the first time; I would love to know nothing about Shakespeare or Jane Austen, to be overwhelmed by the fact that there is a Rosalind, or an Elizabeth Bennett, or later, an Emily Dickinson, in this world, and then, and then to see my hand for the first time attempting to write even a little like they have, to follow them in shyness and trepidation and beautiful frustration, to walk through the incredible territory we call writing and reading and see it all again with new eyes. I wish, I wish, I wish; I wish

I were in your shoes, in a beautiful waiting to know, waiting to read, waiting to write, so that I could open the door and walk through all the books I have ever read or written as if I hadn’t. I wish, I wish, I wish; I wish I were in your shoes now.

Yours in anticipation,

David Whyte

Savor other testaments to the power and splendor of reading from A Velocity of Being — letters by Rebecca Solnit, Anne Lamott, Jane Goodall, Alain de Botton, Debbie Millman, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alexander Chee, Kevin Kelly, and Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin — then revisit Whyte on anger and forgiveness, friendship, love, and heartbreak, and resisting the tyranny of labeling the heart’s truth.


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